My Online Prose Portfolio

"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The Occasional Muse
My humble opinion on current events

August 20, 2002


A small but passionate leftist fringe has kept this issue alive for years, but it wasn't until a few years ago that it achieved mainstream status. Credit for that dubious honor probably goes to Randall Robinson, who wrote a small book called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, in which he makes the case for reparations to descendants of slaves. Militant leftist congressman John Conyers has introduced a bill for several years to establish a Congressional committee to study reparations, and between that and Robinson's book the issue is suddenly prominent.

It gained further momentum this past weekend, when reparations supporters marched on the Mall in Washington DC to promote their cause. It was a miniscule turnout by Mall standards - only two to three thousand, according to Reuters. But that didn't stop Big Liberal Media from covering it like major news, mainly because Big Liberal Media largely approves of the idea. In fact, USA Weekend, that usually ignorable Sunday paper supplement, gave Charles J. Ogletree Jr. precious space to justify the notion of forcing innocents to pay for an atrocity for which they bear no responsibility.

His argument is unconvincing. In fact, it's appallingly so, namely because he makes no attempt to refute reparation's critics. He writes as if there is no debate, as if there are no reasonable arguments against his position. I expected better from a Harvard law professor. There's a reason his argument is thin, though, but we'll save that for later.

He starts by listing the horrors of slavery - the lives lost, the unspeakable Atlantic crossings, and so on. He's right - slavery was horrible. There was (and is) no moral justification for enslaving fellow humans. It's a blight on America's history, and fittingly so, though how Americans dealt with slavery, how so many fought against it, how so many helped slaves flee the plantations through the Underground Railroad, how this country fought a bloody war to end it, all that Ogletree pays little attention. It's a common argument against reparations - the country paid for its sins with the blood of half a million men. Ogletree ignores this argument.

He suggests the American government is willing to listen to reparations ideas because in 1988 the U.S. compensated Japanese-Americans for their forced internment during World War 2, and more recently,  awarded a settlement to 20,000 black farmers for discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. He overlooks the important distinction that those reparations went directly to living victims of oppression - only Japanese who were interred received money. Of course, it's impossible to do that today - the only former slaves still alive come from countries like the Sudan who still practice slavery, which Ogletree also fails to mention. Why should people who are free today be paid because their ancestors several generations removed were slaves? And why should people who are in no way responsible for that enslavement be forced to pay them? Ogletree ignores these arguments.

Actually, that's not fair, because he makes the case that slavery 150 years ago is responsible for the problems plaguing the black community. As he explains, "the legacy of slavery is seen today in well-documented racial disparities in access to education, health care, housing, employment and insurance, and in the form of single-parent homes and the disproportionate number of black inmates." He offers zero evidence for these claims. He apparently wants us to close our eyes and make this huge leap logic right beside him: Racial disparities exist for blacks, blacks were once slaves 150 years ago, ergo, slavery must cause these disparities. 

This logic, to put it mildly, is highly debatable. Take illegitimacy. In 1940, the black illegitimacy rate was about fifteen percent. That's too high, in my opinion, but compare it to 1990: over 70 percent. If the legacy of slavery is responsible for black illegitimacy, the rate should be higher in 1940, when former slaves were still alive and slavery's legacy was much stronger. But the opposite is true. How does Ogletree explain this? Don't know - he never mentions it. 

In fact, high illegitimacy rates may explain many of the problems in the black community. According to the Heritage Foundation, children from single-parent homes are three times more likely than children in two-parent homes to commit crimes. Maybe that accounts for the "disproportionate number of black inmates." 

Ogletree prefers to blame slavery for the problems in the black community rather than blacks themselves. Apparently, blacks are incapable of assuming responsibility for their own lives and well-being - they must depend on The Man, big-daddy government, the Great White Father, to bestow the gift of cash upon them. This is insulting and degrading. Does Ogletree believe that blacks cannot cope for themselves? Does he believe they are inferior to other races in this regard?

Of course not, he would say, because it's discrimination that holds blacks back. Remove that and blacks would prosper. 

He's right - discrimination has been greatly reduced to practically nothing in virtually all segments of America, and blacks have prospered. The middle class is huge and growing, and its upper class is also increasing. Despite the high illegitimacy rate, black child poverty is at its lowest level in U.S. history. So it's hard to argue that discrimination is responsible for black problems at the same time, isn't it? There are disparities in other areas, but many argue that discrimination is not to blame. One can debate these claims, but Ogletree ignores them. Any disparity must be the result of slavery, and that's all there is to it. No arguments allowed.

Ogletree does respond to one criticism, but in doing so he gives his game away and reveals why his arguments are so weak. Reparations, he says, "are not solely focused on money." Why is that? Because he would like the reparations cash to go to some board, which would then dole out the money to "the poorest members of the black community." The problem with that, of course, is that the U.S. has been sending money to poor blacks (and whites) for decades. It's called welfare. It was reformed in 1996 but it's still around. And it hasn't helped at all. If it had, blacks wouldn't need reparations money now. But Ogletree ignores this argument.

He ignores it because in the end the reparations movement is all about cash, and he can't get around that. It's about making the white man pay. Charles Barron, a member of the New York City Council, made it plain at the rally on the mall this past weekend. "I want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health," he crowed. Of course, if a white person said something about slapping a black person and claiming it was a white thing, he'd be hung by his fingernails for a hate crime. 

Anti-Semite and racist Louis Farrakhan voiced similar sentiments. "We need land for political independence, we need millions of acres. We need payment for 310 ears of slavery, of destruction of our minds and the robbery of our culture."

Ogletree pretends in his essay that there are no arguments against reparations because he can't respond to those arguments. He can't explain why a child of immigrants who came to America in 1930 who had no role in slavery of or discrimination against blacks should pay free people for slavery. Why should a descendants of white people who lost brothers, fathers, sons and uncles in the Civil War pay for slavery? They already have. Why should descendants of Quakers who risked their lives teaching black slaves to read and escape slavery be made to pay? And what about those blacks whose ancestors sold their fellow blacks into slavery? Should they pay? Should they receive money? What about free blacks who lived in New Orleans and owned black slaves? Should their ancestors receive money?

Ogletree ignores all these issues, and I have yet to see, read or hear a compelling argument against them.

The United States paid for slavery by doing what no other country in the history of the world has done - fight a bloody war to abolish it. That debt has been paid in full.

Back to The Occasional Muse